“To Thine Own Self Be True”: Self-Concordance and Healthy Goal-Striving

Self-Determination TheoryPeople have goals. In fact, that may be the defining element of our human nature. We´ve been called the “Knowing Man” (Homo sapiens), the “Learning Man” (Homo discens) and even the “Story-telling Man” (Homo narrans) – among lots of other things. In one of their latest works, Martin Seligman, spiritus rector of Positive Psychology, and Roy Baumeister posit that we are “Homo prospectus”: the “envisioning man” – precisely due to the fact that we are always “drawn by the future”. We are always “on to something”: places to go, people to meet, things to do. On a closer look, it is strikingly odd trying to imagine a (living and healthy) person that does not have any goals, however small they may be.  To that effect, we are also drawn by our future selves. There is always an upgrade, a “Me 2.0”. It may wait around the next corner or in a distant future – but again: it´s hard to imagine a person that has stopped trying to “become something else” (and most likely: something “better” – whatever that may be).

So, if goals and goal-striving play such an important part in all our lives: Why does it go wrong so often? Why do people lose their motivation while being on their way? Or, even more interesting: Why do they reach their goals and end up being disillusioned and unhappier than they were before? Some very valuable answers to these questions are provided by Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and the Self-Concordance Model of (healthy) goal-striving (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999), an adjacent framework.

Self-Determination Theory* suggests there are four distinguishable levels of motivation, or more precisely: regulations of behavior: integrated, identified, introjected, and external. The level is determined by the degree of internalization of a specific goal – you might also say: how close it is to our “true selves”; and it´s also a way of describing the path from very little to full autonomy in the process of pursuing a goal.

  • External: When we are forced to do something or carry out an action only because of an external reward (“In it for the money…”).
  • Introjected: When we rely on external goals and standards of evaluation, trying (more or less fruitlessly) to “make them our own”: E.g., doing something in order to raise our own self-esteem.
  • Identified: When we really get to the point of making a once external goal “our own”. This involves willfully appreciating a goal so that it is accepted as personally important.
  • Integrated: When behavioral regulation is entirely assimilated with self and therefore included in a person’s self-evaluations and beliefs about personal needs.

Integrated motivation shares a lot of attributes with intrinsic motivation but is nonetheless classified as extrinsic – because the goal in question is still pursued for reasons extrinsic to the self, rather than the inherent enjoyment of the task.

Self-Concordance and healthy Goal-Striving

The Self-Concordance Model takes the above-mentioned insights one step further. Let´s have a look at the abstract of the first scientific article describing the theory:

The self-concordance of goals (i.e., their consistency with the person’s developing interests and core values) plays a dual role in the model. First, those pursuing self-concordant goals put more sustained effort into achieving those goals and thus are more likely to attain them. Second, those who attain self-concordant goals reap greater well-being benefits from their attainment. Attainment-to-well-being effects are mediated by need satisfaction, i.e., daily activity-based experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness that accumulate during the period of striving.

Self-ConcordanceSo the basic idea is pretty straight-forward: We exert more effort when pursuing goals that are “close to our heart” (contrary to mostly extrinsically regulated goals). More effort leads to progress and a higher likelihood of goal attainment. And in turn, reaching goals makes us happy. But that´s not the end of the story: When we choose to pursue self-concordant goals, the act of moving forward is satisfying in itself. Why is that the case? The theory posits that pursuing self-concordant goals is associated with satisfying three basic psychological needs: The needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

  • Competence: We desperately want to feel competent, at least in those areas of life that are of interest to us. Think of a small child that has just learned a new skill. Typically, it will use this capability over and over again – just for the fun of it.
  • Autonomy: We desperately want to feel in control of our lives, and being able to make our own decisions. Think of a small child that discovers it´s free will and enjoys to do so. The “Terrible Twos” are something parents should be proud of – even though it´s probably difficult to enjoy at that time.
  • Relatedness: We desperately want to feel close to other people (that are important in our lives), we want to feel accepted, and at best: loved. Think of a small child that seeks the comfort of his parents after some time of absence.

Basic Psychological NeedsAnd while I have been talking of small children to make a point: those needs are active in all of us to a varying degree. And it does not stop until the end of this life. Ask yourself:

Do I foster an environment that caters to the fulfillment of these needs with regards to the people I´m involved with?

Here´s some research:

So, these are the answers to the questions from the second paragraph of this article:

  • We experience lack of motivation and failure of self-regulation when we pursue goals that aren´t close enough to our true selves. We may get by for some time clinging to external rewards – but that´s never the “real McKoy
  • We do not cherish our victories when the goals we´ve pursued were never our own in the first place. In that case, “getting there” doesn´t feel sweet and rewarding, but rather stale and phony.

You can learn a lot about that last point from the final chapter of my book – which unfortunately is still only available in German…

*The circular image of SDT has been adapted from a diagram in the aforementioned article on SDT and coaching. An overview of  hundreds (literally…) of studies can be found here. Enjoy!

Goals: Why SMARTIES are smarter than SMART…

It is the same story each year, isn´t it?

  • I really want to lose weight…
  • I really want to quit smoking…
  • I really want to be physically fit…
  • I really want to have my own business…
  • I really want to meet the wo/man of my dreams…

I guess that´s what the top-5 list of New Year´s resolutions would look like. The problem is: most of these goals have about the same half-life period as that hangover that welcomes a lot of us on New Years´s morning. Yet, per se, goal-setting is not a bad thing – quite the opposite is true. The motivational and performance-enhancing effects of goal-setting are among the most thoroughly researched issues in academic psychology.  If you´d like to know more, please read this article that succinctly summarizes 30 years of goal-setting research.

Besides, there´s lots of help available on the net. When you type in “how to reach goals” on Google you´ll get more than one million hits. Most of these will display smart content. To be more precise: some information on the SMART framework. SMART is an acronym that originally stems from project management theory.* There are lots of slightly different versions on the internet. The most common probably is this one:

Specific: A goal should be stated in a markedly tangible way. The more precise, the easier it will be to take the necessary steps. An example: Instead of “I want to work out more often” it is better state something along the lines of “From now on, I will go jogging twice a week for 45 minutes (on Tuesdays and Thursdays right after work). Additionally, I will do weight training on Saturday afternoons for 45 minutes.” This could be refined even more. As a rule of thumb: the more precise you are able to describe to another person what you intend to do, the better.

Measurable: A goal (as well as the distance between the initial situation and the goal) should be quantifiable. Without measurement, there´s no progress check. Without progress, there´s no lasting motivation. An example: Instead of “I want to lose some weight” it is better to state something along the lines of “I want to weigh 140 pounds and keep that weight as a steady state. In order to achieve this, I will lose 4 pounds on average over the next 6 months – and then keep my weight right there.”

Attainable: A goal should be achievable – but definitely display a certain amount of difficulty. Goals that are completely unrealistic typically destroy our motivation. On the other hand, goals that are reached to easily usually do not yield the success stories we really yearn for. Yet, there´s another connotation to this criterion. We should put our efforts in something that personally attainable – a goal should be in our personal “sphere of influence”. For instance, “Finding the man of my dreams” goes against this criterion. It´s much more helpful to plan concrete actions that are conducive to that overarching goal, e.g., enrolling in a dancing course.

Relevant: A goal should be relevant, in other words: important and meaningful. This may sound self-evident – but it is not at all trivial. Rarely do we question the motivation behind our goals sufficiently. Why do I want what I want? Is this really my goal? And if not: For whom or what am I doing this? Should you realize that a goal is chiefly driven by extrinsic motivation please do exercise some caution. The most beneficial kind of goal is a self-concordant objective – in other words, a goal that is aligned with our deeper values and motives. Following a self-concordant goal is a satisfying process in itself – so no matter if you reach the goal or not: you will profit from trying to do so. From this it follows that one important prerequisite for “good goals” is a sufficient level of self-awareness. One way to attain this is getting to know your (character) strengths. You´ll find a free scientifically validated test here (create a profile, then choose the „VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire“).

Time-bound: A goal should have a reasonably defined time frame. Without this, there is no rigorous progress review. Additionally, most people are motivated by deadlines – so why not use this extra kick? I guess an example is not needed here.

Ok. So this is the original SMART framework. I assume that most of my readers have been at least somewhat familiar with this. Now the question is: Why do so many personal changes endeavors fail? Is SMART useless? Probably not. But incomplete, most likely. Therefore, here´s my proposal for an extension – based on science and my personal experience as a coach:

SMARTIES

Implementation Intentions: Peter Gollwitzer, a German professor of motivational psychology, has developed a method that tries to bridge the ever-looming implementation gap:  so-called implementation intentions. Because of their structure, they are also called “If-Then-Plans” (Alternatively: “When-Then”).  They function by connecting planned behavior with triggering cues in the proximate environment. Two examples: 1) “Right after I have laid down my briefcase when coming home from work, I will put on my jogging clothes and go for a run. If the weather is really bad, I´ll use the exercise machine instead.” 2) “If I notice a strong urge to smoke, I will put a chewing gum in my mouth immediately.” Once again: the more concrete the plan, the higher the chance for following through.

Exceptions clarified: If you want to create a new habit, making no exceptions at all over the course of the first months is the fastest road to success.  At the same time, it is well-known that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Therefore, it is very helpful to give some thought to the potential occurrence of exceptions and setbacks. For instance: What does smoking one cigarette once in a while mean for somebody who tries to quit? From my experience with coaching clients I know that people tend to frame these exceptions to the new rule as a total failure of the change project – which in turn extinguishes all of their motivation.  In terms of sustainable change, it is therefore helpful to define which exceptions to the new rule will be acceptable – without calling into question the overall endeavor.

Systemic Perspective: Finally, I highly suggest giving some thought to the following issues (this is comparable to a Force-Field Analysis in organizational change management):

How does my goal fit in with the goals and aspirations of important people in my personal context (the external system)? E.g., if you would like to work out from now on for 5 hours per week: Is this time you usually spend with your significant other? And if yes: How do you intend to “compensate” for this?

How does my goal fit into the texture of those goals and intentions that are already in place (the internal system)? It is useful to ask which positive intentions (secondary benefits) are fulfilled by those behavior patterns that you would like to change/eliminate. Your chances of establishing a new behavior pattern are much higher if you manage to transfer these intensions/needs into your new mode of being: By way of example, most smokers do not smoke because they like the taste. Rather, smoking fulfills a calmative function. For some, it´s a means of weight control. Additionally, there is a social aspect to smoking that needs to be considered. So if you want to quit, it is highly advisable to give some thought to the question of how to integrate these requirements into your life as non-smoker.

By the way: it cannot hurt to get some external reference to keep yourself on track. The earlier you manage to turn the envisioned behavior into a habit, the better. In 2014, I use my smartphone, specifically the Good Habit Maker and the app Balanced.

 

* The original source of the SMART framework is this article (most likely): Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35-36.

 

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